October 15, 2016


 History of discrimination continues to impact LGBT health

Posted Sept. 28, 2016

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterinarians face the same wellness issues other practitioners do, with the added concern that a history of oppression and discrimination contributes to an even greater likelihood of mental health and substance abuse issues, says Dr. Michael Chaddock, Lesbian and Gay VMA vice president. However, the LGBT community largely has not been acknowledged in discussions on wellness in the veterinary profession.

Life experiences and situations—not sexual orientation, per se—increase the risk factors for suicide-related behaviors in LGBT people.”

Dr. Michael Chaddock,
Lesbian and Gay VMA president 

That’s why the association is advocating for more information that can help create successful wellness strategies for this at-risk population (see survey sidebar below).

Dr. Chaddock, who’s also associate dean of administration at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, gave a presentation on LGBT wellness issues Aug. 8 during AVMA Convention 2016.

Disparity in health issues 

No data have been collected on how many veterinarians identify as LGBT. That said, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ 2011 campus climate survey showed that about 6.5 percent of respondents self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or questioning their sexuality, with another 0.5 percent saying they are transgender.

To understand why there are unique LGBT wellness issues, Dr. Chaddock said, it’s important to understand the community’s background. For example, bars have historically been the only safe places for LGBT people to gather. Consequently, alcohol abuse has been an ongoing problem in the community. Some issues individuals in the LGBT community have faced are illegal discrimination in access to health insurance, employment, housing, marriage, adoption, and retirement benefits; lack of laws protecting against bullying in schools; lack of social programs targeted to or appropriate for LGBT youth, adults, and elders; and a shortage of health care providers knowledgeable of and culturally competent in LGBT health issues.

Research suggests that discrimination against LGBT people is associated with higher rates of health problems, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and suicide than those of their straight counterparts. Some of the disparities within the LGBT community that result in conditions requiring public health attention or culturally competent health care are as follows, according to Dr. Chaddock:

  • Gay men, especially gay men of color, are at higher risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Lesbian and bisexual females are more likely to be overweight or obese.
  • A higher percentage of lesbian or gay adults (56.4 percent) and bisexual adults (47.4 percent) report experiencing intimate-partner violence than do straight adults (17.5 percent).
  • LGBT adults who live in states with fewer protective social policies have higher rates of psychiatric and substance abuse disorders than those living in states with more protective policies.
  • LGBT people overall have 2.45 times the risk of making suicide attempts over their lifespan than their straight counterparts do.
  • Twenty-seven percent of transgender people are victims of violence, up to 64 percent have suicidal ideation, and 16 to 37 percent have attempted suicide.

In addition, individuals with intersectional identities can face multiple threats of discrimination because of overlapping minority characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity.

“Life experiences and situations—not sexual orientation, per se—increase the risk factors for suicide-related behaviors in LGBT people,” Dr. Chaddock said.

Potential solutions

Solutions should take into account physical environments, which can contribute greatly to the health of LGBT individuals, Dr. Chaddock said. That means safe schools, neighborhoods, and housing; access to recreational facilities and activities; availability of safe meeting places; and access to health care services.

For LGBT youth, he said the more supportive schools are those that have gay-straight alliances and safe spaces for LGBT youth, prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, encourage staff to attend training on creating supportive environments for LGBT youths, and facilitate access to providers off campus.

Dr. Sandra Hazanow, LGVMA president, said one struggle her organization is having is that students are active in LGBT groups in veterinary college, but after graduation, they often don’t join the LGVMA.

“They go into their own world, and the focus shifts on surviving in the environment they are in,” she said. “Some are in friendly communities, and some aren’t.

“We think many go way-deep back in the closet to survive.”   

Survey looking at LGBT wellness

As a follow-up to the AVMA’s work on wellness, the Lesbian and Gay VMA and Auburn University are undertaking a survey focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterinary professionals as well as their allies.

The research study, titled “Mental Health Outcomes and Occupational Stressors in LGBT Veterinary Professionals and Students,” is being conducted by Tracy Witte, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Auburn University, in collaboration with the LGVMA, Broad Spectrum, and British Veterinary Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender group. Dr. Witte previously co-authored the study “Risk factors for suicide, attitudes toward mental illness, and practice-related stressors among US veterinarians” and attended the AVMA veterinary profession wellness roundtable (see story), held March 14-15 in Schaumburg, Illinois.

The purpose of the latest wellness study is to examine negative work and school experiences and the prevalence of negative mental health outcomes among LGBT veterinary professionals and students. Investigators are also interested in gathering similar information from individuals who do not identify as LGBT.

The LGVMA is partnering with Dr. Witte to submit a proposal to present the survey results at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Annual Convention in March 2017 in Washington, D.C.

The online survey is available here

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